Ask A Shrink: Self Harm

I am a single mom that went through a horrible divorce that lasted over three years.

My daughter did self-harm, and she says she is no longer burning herself. She is now an adult and putting tattoos all over her body. Is this a different form of self-hurt?

Dear Single Mom,

I can't speak to the meaning of your daughter's tattoos. People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons. They're a form of self-expression — at times an attempt to symbolize the unspeakable, to point to something that cannot be captured in words, but seeks to be written upon the body.

According to Molly Merson, a therapist in Berkeley, “Tattoos can be a way of reclaiming one's agency and body, for those who have felt helpless or powerless. They can also be a way of allowing unconscious images to be seen, memorializing a person or event that's important to you, or representing something symbolically that may not be easy to put directly into words. The skin is the largest organ in our body, and is the first point of contact with the outside world. To mark it with something that is meaningful is a powerful way of taking up space and being recognized in a world that often seeks to devalue difference.”

As a parent, you have a remarkably difficult task. You have to figure out how to navigate the ups and downs of being a fallible, awkward, floundering mess of human being, while also teaching another, tinier, more vulnerable human being how to be human.

It's hard to imagine why anyone signs up for this job.

But you did, SM. You took it upon yourself to dive in and raise a human, even while you were still trying to figure it out yourself. That's some bold shit.

On top of that, you were in a relationship that crumbled. Not only did it crumble, but the process stretched on for more than three long, heart-wrenching years. You had the task of attending to the emotional needs of your kid while also struggling to survive your own devastated emotional world.

You know that (amazing) Virgin America flight safety song, where the little girl instructs, via rap, “put your mask on first before you offer assistance?” As a parent, you also have to put on your own mask, making sure you can breathe, before you can ensure your kid's survival. And likely, while you were floundering to get your mask on, your daughter was suffocating a bit.

It's nobody's fault. It's just what happens. We fail our kids sometimes. For a while, your daughter fell through the cracks. The only way she could find containment, or express her need for help, was through burning herself. For her, the burning of the flesh provided relief from intense emotional suffering.

We can't go back in time and repair the damage. You can't undo what was done. Things happened. Your daughter got emotionally dropped at times. But you can be there for her now. The most courageous thing you can do as a parent is to invite your daughter to share what it was like for her during those years of divorce. And listen nondefensively — no “buts,” no “woe is me,” no “what about your father.”

It takes immense personal work to engage in these kinds of conversations successfully. If you cannot simply ask her — about the tattoos, about the burning — and have an open, vulnerable conversation, then there is work for you to do in this area. There are unconscious dynamics still at play.

By doing the work yourself — seeking outside help — to become more full, more aware, more present as a person, you are, in essence, becoming a better parent.

“Do you” and make room for your daughter's experience, and I bet you one day she'll be able to tell you — in her own words — about the relationship between the self and those tattoos, the pain that she cannot yet bear to speak to you.

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities — be this professionally, ethnically, or economically. She has been featured in Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Find out more:

Disclaimer: Though Tiffany is a licensed professional, this advice column is not therapy. It is for education and entertainment. Use at your own risk.

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